As the Tokaido approaches Edo from the south, it runs along a narrow, flat strip of land on the shore of Edo bay. The highway follows the base of a steep, wooded slope that rises to a flat plateau on one side. On the other, a broad expanse of marshes extends far out into Edo Bay. Vast stretches of tall, waving reeds surround you, and from the highway you have a fine view out at the blue waters of the bay beyond. At a few choice locations, there are pavilions set up for weary travelers to rest. These pavilions also serve as picnic sites for visitors from the city, which is not far away. From the highway, you can even vaguely see the large buildings of downtown Edo farther up the coast.
If you look out across the bay, you can see huge flocks of waterfowl soaring through the air and bobbing up and down on the choppy waves. Offshore, hundreds of fishing boats skim across the blue waters of the bay. This area of marshes and shallow waters is one of the richest fishing areas supplying the city. The boats small sail back and forth, casting their nets or scooping mussels from the mud flats with wire mesh buckets fixed to long poles. Although there are only a few small fishing settlements along this marshy strip of coastline, the road is bustling with activity, because we are getting close to the town of Shinagawa, the first big town on the southern edge of Edo
As we get closer to the city, the narrow coastal strip widens a little bit, and cluster of small farmhouses and fishing shacks can be seen on both sides of the road. At first, most of the buildings are just small dwellings made of wood and thatch. However, as we continue along the road, more and more of the buildings are fairly large structures with broad front gates and roofs made out of ceramic tiles (kawara). The buildings are all packed close together, and sit very close to the road. Although most of the larger homes and shops in Edo have pleasant gardens, all of the buildings face inward. The walls and gates extend right to the edge of the street. As a result, all of the streets look crowded and busy, even in fairly residential areas.
As we move further towards the center of town, the buildings become even larger and more imposing. Almost all of them are two-story structures with high, tile-covered roofs and balconies above the street. Some are shops, which sell all sorts of merchandise and face out onto the street. Others are inns for the many travelers going to and from Edo along the Tokaido. This is Shinagawa, a busy town on the southern edge of Edo, and the final juku, or lodging town, on the Tokaido.
Shinagawa is alive with the buzz of commerce. This may even be how the district got its name. (Shinagawa can be translated as "river of goods"). It has been an important center of commerce since the time Edo was first built. Shinagawa is situated in a strategic location -- straddling the main road in a place where the coastal plain narrows and the Meguro River empties into the bay. The town, which is tightly packed onto the narrow strip of land between the sea and a high plateau, is home to many small merchants, fishermen and farmers. There is a fairly large port, which is used not only by the local fishermen, but also by cargo ships bringing in goods from all over the country. However, the main reason why Shinagawa is so lively, crowded, and filled with energy is that it is an official juku. The juku towns are located at regular intervals along all of the main highways in Edo Japan.
All of the major roads in Edo have juku towns located at regular intervals -- usually every five to ten kilometers. At the center of each juku, you can find rows of shops selling food and all sorts of provisions that travelers might need. Many of these towns have become famous for some sort of food or clothing item that is a local specialty, so the stores selling these items do a good business selling the items as meibutsu (souvenirs). In addition to the shops, there is always a large cluster of hostels, inns and lodging-houses where travellers can spend the night. However, towns serve a far more complex function than simply to provide travelers a place to sleep. Although the word "juku" means "inn", or "lodging", in many cases the lodging function of these towns is secondary. Their most important purpose is to serve as centers for the government's official network of transportation, communication, administration and commerce.
Towns located on major highways cannot simply build hotels and hostels for travelers, and then become juku. They must receive official permission directly from the Shogun. In addition, such permission is not granted to just any merchant or townsperson. The heads of the juku (the "town leaders") are almost always important officials with some sort of family relationship to either the Emperor or the Shogun. This is because each juku is required to perform many official functions for the government in return for its right to lodge travelers.
To begin with, every resident and business in the juku town must help to provide and pay for horses and riders to work for the government. These riders transport official messages and commercial goods up and down the major highways. The Bakufu's public mail and "parcel delivery" service operates a bit like the old post riders of Europe or the Pony Express in America's "Wild West". Rather than having a single horse, wagon or person carry the goods from their point of origin all the way to their destination, parcels, messages and even shipments of commercial goods are simply addressed to their recipient and sent to the nearest juku. The post riders then carry them from one juku to the next. The riders at the next juku then carry the shipments on to the the following one. This continues until the parcels and messages reach the juku closest to their destination. Each juku must equip and maintain its own riders and horses to carry the messages. The required number of riders depends on how busy the road is. For example, towns on the Koshu-kaido must be able to provide 25 riders and horses at any given time; those on the Nakasendo must maintain 50; towns on the Tokaido must provide 100 horses and riders each.
In addition to the financial and administrative cost of supporting the nation's mail and parcel delivery system, each juku also has to provide free lodging to Bakufu officials, daimyo and other nobles. Each town has specific inns set aside for these important visitors. There are two main types of "Government" lodgings, a honjin or "main lodging", and the waki-honjin or "secondary lodging". Every juku has at least one of each type, and on the busier roads they may maintain two or three waki-honjin, in order to avoid quarrels or even armed fights over lodgings. Such fights occasionally do happen, when two equally-ranked nobles or officials and their retainers show up unannounced on the same day. If one noble outranks the other, they automatically get the best lodgings. However, if neither one is superior, they may decide to fight it out to decide who gets to sleep where!
Finally, the juku serve as official "toll booths" for the Shogun. Merchants who transport their goods by highway must pay a toll for the products they carry. The toll rates are set according to the number of horses or nimpu (foot bearers). There is a weight limit on how much one horse or nimpu is allowed to carry, so the juku also are expected to function as "weight stations" to check whether anyone is overloaded. The weight limits are about 150 kg for a horse and a bit over 20 kg for a person. Anyone horse or nimpu who is caught with too heavy a load has to pay an extra charge.
Considering all these services that the juku have to provide for free, it is a wonder they can even make money. Actually, most of the inn owners do not make enough money from their lodging businesses. They usually have to supplement their incomes by selling souvenirs, snacks and presents to the people who lodge at their inns, and by providing women for "entertainment". These "entertainment women" have become a very important business for many of the innkeepers. In fact, many of the inns have come to resemble brothels. However, there are other inns that cater specifically to women, families and other people who prefer to avoid the sort of bawdy entertainment that is typical of the entertainment quarter. They advertise this fact by putting a sign in the window announcing that they are Naniwa-ko or Azuma-ko (these are the two most common "chains" of G-rated hotels).
The inns that cater to common folk are the most lively and busy. Though some offer private rooms, all have common halls for eating and entertaining. Travelers often eat, carouse and share stories, song and poetry until late at night.
If you would like to experience what it is like to spend the night at a Japanese inn, we can stop here and spend the night. Or, we can continue our trip along the Tokaido. What would you like to do?
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